When I was a kid, my mother made my sisters and I homemade Christmas stockings. Every December, these craft-tastic masterpieces still assume their positions of honor on the banister of my parents’ staircase, where their multitude of hand-sewed sequins shimmer, palpably emanating peace and joy and all those other elements of the Christmas spirit that aren’t usually my parents’ speed.
It’s obvious that my father conceptually engineered the stockings: his unique design sensibilities are writ large. Instead of adhering to the conventional sock silhouette, the felt of our stockings are cut in the shape of a chunky-heeled boot: Each one is personalized with our names, spelled out in my father’s trademark, much-lauded swirly letters. But it’s in the decorative detail that you see my mother’s hand and the painstaking hours she devoted to the project: underneath each name, an all-felt Christmas scene is affixed – a tall fir tree laden with balls and candy canes and tinsel, surrounded by all manner of Rockwell-era Christmas toys like rocking horses and tricycles, teddy bears and baby dolls. The whole lot of it is slathered in sequins, each one sewed on by hand.
What makes the stockings so impressive, and precious, is that my mother is not a naturally crafty person (at least not in the arts-and-crafts sense): she doesn’t knit or paint or do origami or even arrange flowers in a pleasing way. So, the stockings were clearly a labor of love. I can just see her in bell bottoms and a bowl cut, so overcome by affection for her tiny, tow-headed kids, so driven by a desire to bind us together in tradition, that she unearthed her old Home Ec sewing basket and set about making Christmas history.
Now, fast forward a few decades and you’ll find my own kids celebrating Christmas with stockings I purchased at the 99 cent store. While generic, these velour, furry-cuffed stockings did the job of holding loot quite nicely and there were never any complaints. But last year, when my husband David and I unpacked the Christmas stuff, the stockings had gone missing and it occurred to me that instead of replacing crap with more crap, I could give the gift that lasts a lifetime. I could fashion homemade stockings for the children. If my mother could do it, then certainly, so could I. Better, probably. Mainly, of course, my stockings would be in honor of my mother, an homage to her initial creation, but if they just so happened to surpass hers in creativity, devotion and skill, well, there was nothing I could do about it. Once I realized I could compete with my mother’s accomplishment, it was a done deal. I bought a tonnage of felt and sequins and got to work.
“Children, I have an announcement!” I exclaimed the day before Christmas Eve, “I am making you homemade, personalized Christmas stockings! Just like the ones Nana made for me!”
My six year-old son, known in these parts as Primo, made a vague grunting noise to indicate he’d heard me. His four year-old sister, Seconda, was too busy jamming Play Doh in the bottom of Legos to reply.
“They will be one-of-a-kind!” I gushed, “Irreplaceable! You will keep them your whole lives and hand them down to your children!”
“Isn’t that wonderful??” I pressed, through slightly gritted teeth.
“Oh. Great. Thanks.” replied Primo flatly, not even looking up from the Legos.
After working until midnight that night, I had cut the felt for both stockings, the letters for Seconda’s name and the shape of the evergreen trees that would serve as the centerpiece for the heartwarming Christmas scene on the front. This took me about five hours, and I hadn’t even threaded a needle yet. I realized that to meet my goal — attaching faux-fur trim, affixing the kids’ names, trimmed trees. loads of presents under the trees AND (the tiebreaker) a simple night-scape of shooting stars, moons and candy canes — I’d probably have to work from that moment until New Year’s. There was no way I’d be done in time for Santa.
So on Christmas Eve, I brought the work-sack full of felt to my parent’s place and basically turned the apartment into a Stocking-Manufacturing Sweat Shop. While my mother and father cooked, I barked orders at the rest of the crew – my sister was appointed head of Cutting, David was Official Threader, my cousins were freelance seamstresses. All of these laborers were as unskilled as I was however and it was a real case of the blind leading the blind: stitches dropped, wrinkled felt, crooked names and just sloppy craftsmanship in general. But when my grandmother finally got sprung from her duties preparing the Christmas lasagna, I roped her into the operation and the whole sewing machine kicked into turbo drive.
Nonnie worked as a seamstress in swimsuit factories for nigh on forty years and she knows her way around a needle and thread. The woman is a professional.
“So I want to put sequins on the perimeter of the tree,” I started telling her.
“Ok ok ok,” she interrupted, “I know wat you talkin’ about.”
She slipped on her reading glasses, positioned the thimble in place and what followed can only be described as a Christmas miracle. In the time it took me to knot the end of the thread, she’d already sewed on five letters. I am not exaggerating. It was like having a contest between sometime who was sewing with their fingers and someone who was sewing with their toes.
You know how, when you’re little, you believe that a few elves in Santa’s workshop make all the toys for all the kids in the world, and it’s a plausible scenario because the elves are magical? Well, if those elves have skills like my grandmother, I totally buy it again. Watching Nonnie dart the needle in and out of the felt, through sequins, over fur, her hands a pale blur, I believed.
And that’s when I revisited the 1970s scene of my mother making stockings for my sisters and I. All these years, I’d envisioned her doing it all by herself, sitting cross-legged in a polyester pantsuit. But now I’d discovered her secret weapon: her mother. I’m sure my mother started the project and oversaw the operation, but there was no doubt in my mind that Nonnie, stocking elf, had finished the job. It takes a village to raise a child, but to make their homemade Christmas stockings, all it takes is one super-skilled great-grandmother.
By the time I went back to my apartment on Christmas Eve, I had just a few finishing touches to add before sewing the stockings closed. Of course, these finishing touches took me four hours. I collapsed in a heap at 2am, having hung the finished stockings on the doorknob of the kids’ bedroom, where they glittered gleefully, catching the light from the Christmas tree. You could hear them singing the words “Labor of love!” to the tune of Silent Night. I felt magnificent.
The next morning when the kids woke at the crack of dawn, all bushy-tailed to see Santa’s offerings, I was significantly less magnificent. It took a preternatural amount of self control not to scream stuff like “WHO IS GOING TO CLEAN UP ALL THIS DAMN WRAPPING PAPER, HUH?” as they tore their presents open. But as an antidote to crankiness, I just looked at my kids’ twinkling eyes, all aglow with the magic of Christmas — and when that wore off, I gazed lovingly at my other masterful creations – so much less loud and demanding. There the stockings hung, the white fur so puffy and inviting, the felt trees so symmetrical, the adorable presents lined up in adorable rows underneath.
These stockings would outlast me, serving as a reminder to my children of my love for them, a love so great it caused me to overcome incompetence, laziness and a natural aversion to needles. Sure, my children didn’t appreciate them in the slightest now, but one day, when they had kids of their own, they’d smooth down the distressed edges of the felt trees I’d pricked my fingertips sewing on, and they’d say to themselves – or, dare I dream?, out loud – “You are a great mother, maybe even the best that ever lived.” Then they’d think, “And if she could do it, so could I. Better, probably.” And so, a legacy continues.
To read more of Nicole’s adventures in Mommyland, tune in to her blog, A Mom Amok, amomamok.blogspot.com.